Authors: Jo-Ann Mapson
“Someday this will all be a funny story to tell your grandchildren,” Allegra said that Christmas, as everyone sat around the tiny artificial Christmas tree upstairs from The Owl & Moon. “You’ll explain how you were forced to take a drug test, and how the ACLU came to your aid, and how that began your lifelong interest in the legal system and—”
“Alice,” Gammy said, “enough already. This is Jesus’ birthday, and I don’t think He appreciates talking about drugs when He started his life in a stable on scratchy animal hay, for crying out loud. Lindsay, open my present next. I knitted you a hat. Put it on. I can’t bear to look at your poor, bald head another minute.”
Lindsay unwrapped a knitted gray cap that even Belva Satterly would have been ashamed of. “I love it,” she told her great-grandmother, and put it on. Why not, if it made Gammy happy for a few hours? Later, she would rub lunchmeat all over it and accidentally drop it in Theodora’s bed. Behind them, the deerhound yawned. “Now you open my present,” she said, and handed Gammy a heavy box six inches square. Inside was a moisturizer made from rose petals that came from Sally’s mother’s farm. It was guaranteed to restore “youthful dew.” Gammy peered over her glasses to read the fine print.
“Have to make sure no marihoochie went into this,” she said gruffly, and everyone laughed and took another Christmas cookie, and pretty soon Allegra couldn’t stand it any longer, and put her new DVD of
into the DVD player, fast-forwarding to the scene when the fairy hits Bill Murray with the toaster.
“Allegra,” Lindsay said. “Please open my present.”
She did, peeling away tissue paper to reveal a small box, inside which was a single, hand-rolled cigarette.
“I made it myself,” Lindsay said, and they all laughed except for Gammy.
“Alice, can you please refrain from toking up until I head down to Dove’s?”
“I don’t know, Mama. This looks pretty good.”
“Lord, God,” Gammy said. “Give me strength to get through this night.”
Mariah touched her mother’s hand. “It’s okay with me if you smoke it.”
Lindsay could tell that one touch meant more to Allegra than any dozen presents.
Then her mom said, “Does it work on broken hearts? If so, I want a little.”
“We’ll smoke it together,” Allegra said.
Gammy put her hands over her ears. “I am not going to be a party to this.”
“Lindsay, this present’s for you from Fergus,” Mariah said.
Obviously it was a book. Lindsay tore the paper away, and held in her hands a hardcover copy of
The Dragons of Eden.
“Oh,” Mariah said. “You already have that, don’t you?”
“Not in hardback,” Lindsay said, and then opened it. There on the title page, in turquoise ink, was Carl Sagan’s signature. She’d know it anywhere. “Mom, look,” she said, taking out an index card that was covered with writing. She read aloud, “Dear Lindsay, I know this book is a second edition, but the seller assured me it was still quite valuable. On Thanksgiving night I drove clear to Crescent City in order to purchase it. I didn’t dare take a chance on the post. Many happy returns of the day. Your friend, Fergus D. Applecross.”
Lindsay saw her mother’s face redden. FTF being so thoughtful, him being in Scotland, she didn’t know what to do. “Fergus drove all the way to Oregon to buy that?”
“That’s what the card says.” Lindsay turned it over. “I guess I’d better write him a thank-you letter,” Lindsay said. “I love it. I love you, too, Mom. I’m really sorry about almost getting arrested. And my hair. We were just trying to make a point.”
Mariah sighed. “Sally’s a bit more of a dramatic influence on you than I would like, but in the end it worked out okay. You won the scholarship.”
“Taylor’s dad is still contesting it.”
“Taylor’s dad can afford to pay her college tuition,” Mariah said. “Tell me something. Would you have been as happy with an honorable mention?”
“Yes,” Lindsay said. “That would have been enough.”
“Hand over that devil weed,” Gammy said. “Good Lord, it smells like the business end of a skunk. How on earth anyone can smoke this…”
With the dorky hat pulled down over her ears and her jacket collar turned up, Lindsay was warm enough to stay out on the beach for hours, but Khan didn’t get very far in the sand. She carried him down by the water, and found a sand dollar with only one part missing. It was gray and had probably been tossed around by waves for a long time before it was deposited on the sand. She brushed the sand off, let Khan sniff it, and then put it in her pocket to show to Dr. G when he got back from San Francisco. A little ways down the beach, her mother held on to Theo’s leash, standing on the beach looking like one of those sailor’s wives Allegra used to tell her about. Just standing there, looking out to sea, waiting.
fifty-two Sundays out of the year plus Christmas, December twenty-sixth, and New Year’s Day. But even when the doors were locked, work remained to be done. The Sunday before New Year’s Mariah was downstairs early with Lindsay, who was going with Sally to a horse show and then spending the next two nights at her house, including New Year’s Eve. Mariah was a little worried—after the pot business, who knew what those girls might dream up next? Sally wasn’t the person Mariah would have picked for her daughter’s friend, but watching Lindsay apply the Thomas theorem, matching an opponent’s wit and endurance often resulted in a desired friendship, was ethnomethodology, a theory Mariah respected, because instead of accepting a perceived reality as already being out there, it showed that you could create and live your own reality.
“What are Sally’s parents doing for New Year’s Eve?”
Lindsay stopped petting Theo and looked up. “Mom, look at me. Do I look like a girl who would get into trouble?”
“Are you sure you want me to answer that?”
“Her parents will be there, plus her entire family. Not that we would try to get away with anything, but how could we? Plus we are supposed to keep an eye on Savannah, and she is the neediest child in the universe. She won’t even go to the bathroom by herself and she is almost seven years old!”
“That must be hard on her mother,” Mariah said. Then the horn honked and with a brief kiss, Lindsay was out the door. Allegra was at Dr. G’s, and Gammy had taken the bus from Salinas to visit her friend Dove. Simon had offered to drive her to the bus station, and she’d actually let him. Gammy was having no problem letting go. The Owl & Moon, she reminded Mariah, was a business, not a way of life. Though she was still suspicious of the new waitress, she had “bigger trout to fry” since Simon would soon be coming out from behind the stove into the café proper. “It’s time for a change,” Mariah said, but her comments fell on deaf ears. To say it was hard watching her grandmother transition to retired life wasn’t the half of it.
Mariah inspected the cupboards. If she was going to make any cookies for Monday, she needed to restock supplies. The vanilla bottle was dry. They were drastically low on brown sugar, and one of the cookie sheets had been dropped too many times to bend back into the proper shape. “Well, Theo,” she said, “looks like it’s just us two tonight.”
At the sound of her name, the gray dog looked up, her warm brown eyes alert and the pink tongue lolling from her mouth, giving her every appearance of smiling. When Fergus left her with Mariah, she strained at the leash to go with him. “Tirrah,” he’d said, kissing Mariah on the forehead. “Farewell for a brief time,” he’d told his dog. Mariah watched him go out the café door without a backward glance.
On Christmas night, when everyone was asleep, Mariah invited Theo onto her bed and buried her face in the dog’s neck. “I’m afraid I’ve made a terrible mistake letting your master into my bed,” she’d said, “because look what happened next—he wormed his way into my heart. What do you take for that, Theo? Is there any medicine?” While Lindsay could explain the chambers of the heart, and science was always interesting and full of debatable ideas, it was no better than sociology at three o’clock in the morning when you ached to have a man put his arms around you and snore in your ear. The unvarnished truth was that Mariah no longer liked being alone, and in order not to be alone, she had to get in her car and drive to her mother—and father’s—house. Mariah would rather cut off her arm than watch her mom live the last five months over again. Gammy would return eventually, but Allegra wasn’t coming back. It was stupid to feel awkward with a man who’d saved your mother’s life and who just happened to have contributed one half your genetic code. Dr. G was generous with Lindsay. Mariah said thank you as often as the occasion warranted it, but it was difficult to articulate what she felt in her heart. I want to tell you about the times I skinned my knees, how my third-grade teacher made me do over my paper because she didn’t believe I wrote it, and dammit all, I did, and if you’d been there, I know she would have backed off instead of arguing with Allegra. How did a person condense a childhood into a conversation?
Supply list made out, Mariah began counting the till. Suddenly, Theo’s tail began thumping like it did when Mariah announced supper. “What’s got you so happy all of a sudden?” she asked, and in response, the dog went to the café windows and began to vocalize, the “roo-roo-rooing” that was common to sight hounds. “Nothing out there except some stupid deer,” Mariah said without looking up. “As tempting as that may be to you, I refuse to be a part of the hunt, so you might as well lie back down.”
Rock salt! She turned back to the supplies list to write it down. Rock salt was coarse, it made for a better pinch, and she liked to cover the crust of rosemary bread in it. She grabbed a twenty from the till cash so she could buy what she needed and tucked it into her pocket, and started separating bills.
The bell on the café door rang, startling her, and her first thought was, Oh, no! I forgot to lock the door after Lindsay left and here comes a robber. What a way to start the New Year. But it wasn’t a robber. It was Fergus.
“Come here, you big old funny face,” he said to his dog, reaching for the biscuits he kept in his pockets.
“Greet the dog first? I guess I know where I stand,” Mariah said, trying hard to sound as blasé as he did, but oh, her knees were shaking.
“Look at you,” Fergus said. “Sitting there counting your gains, my adorable little capitalist.”
Mariah calmly smiled, though her heart was hammering so loud she was sure he could hear it. “By my reckoning, you’re back four weeks early. What happened? Did they kick you out of Scotland because too much California rubbed off on you?”
“I missed the love of my life,” he said, and made as if to kiss Theo, but at the last minute, came to Mariah instead.
She swallowed hard and looked into those blue eyes. “Really?”
“Truly. I’m knackered. Done for. A fool in love.”
She felt his breath in her hair and didn’t want the moment to end.
He pulled away first, as if this day was no different from any other, as if men cut short holidays and told women they loved them all the time. “Come along,” he said. “We’ve a dog to walk. A sunset to be enjoyed, however briefly, and then that holiday thing, yes, we must attend to that, ringing out the auld and welcoming the new, though I must confess, I’ve forgotten to purchase crackers and party hats, so sorry.”
“It’s okay. We’ll think of something else to use.”
When Fergus looked at her, Mariah saw things she didn’t want to admit. A little house. Enough fenced yard that Theodora could safely run. A baby crying. Lindsay driving the Subaru to college. These pictures blocked out her ability to detach, to remain the observer instead of the one doing all the living. Did she really, truly want a life that had the potential to hurt her as much as make her happy? But suppose it did make her happy? Life came with no guarantees, whether it was how long her mother would live, or how Lindsay would turn out. “You learn as you go,” Gammy always said. “Trust the big guy upstairs to show you the path.”
She kissed Fergus, locked the money into the safe, shut off the lights save for the neon “CLOSED,” kissed Fergus two more times, and then snapped Theodora’s leash to her harness. Fergus took hold of it while Mariah zipped up her winter jacket, and she followed them out the door. As it always did, the bell rang out with its tenor chimes. And just as she always did, Mariah looked up at the sign, the crescent of moon shining, the shabby owl perched there, his wing outstretched, saying
Come in, come in. You are welcome here. We will feed you and we will listen.
But now there was no reason to wonder who her father was. And what her mother had said was true: The sign maker had been just a sign maker. Halfway across the threshold, she cried out, “Fergus!”
“What’s the matter, love?” he said as she stood there, finally able to see something so simple it had been in front of her nose all the time.”
“Nothing. I’m fine. I’m wonderful. I get it,” she said, smiling. “Fergus, I finally understand.”
“Well, tell me, then. What is it you finally get and understand?”
“The sign. It’s the
and Moon. All this time I was thinking owl as in bird, but it’s not the bird, it’s a person. It’s my father.
They’re homonyms! And I even know why she did it. This way, even though he’d left, she kept him close, every single time she walked in or out the door. How could it have taken me all this time to figure it out?”
Fergus handed her Theo’s leash so he could turn down Mariah’s collar. He pulled pencils from her hastily assembled bun so that her hair fell into his hands. “My number two geisha,” he said. “You are clever. Let’s talk about that as we walk, shall we?”
Theodora whined, and in that moment, the leash slipped from Mariah’s hand. Instantly, the dog seemed to fly from the sidewalk into traffic. Mariah saw it all unfold in slow motion: The car veering into the intersection, the deer across the street in the cemetery. Oh, this was going to end badly. She could not find the voice to scream. She wanted to shut her eyes, but this was her fault, and then Fergus whistled. “Come, Theo,” he said. He whistled again. “Come along, girl.”
Theodora stood torn between what she knew and what she wanted. Then—who knew why—the deerhound trotted back to the sidewalk and came toward them, her red leash trailing after her. When she was close enough, Fergus crouched down, took hold of the leash, and wrapped his arms around her. He was shaking. In turn, Mariah embraced them both and sighed. My God! The choices life handed you! One minute you had all the time in the world, yet it could be taken from you in a second. Allegra was right. When you knew what you wanted, you had better run after it.
In the distance, the Pacific roared. In a matter of steps they would be on the beach, dog and people safe. But for that one awful moment, Mariah had stood there witnessing an ancient breed move the way nature had intended, which was freely and focused, and yet, she was willing to give all that up for companionship. It was almost New Year’s, and this coming year would be good. She slipped her hand into Fergus’s. He squeezed it, and the three of them moved on.